Magic in Shakespeare:
The Supernatural in his Plays and Contemporary Society
The supernatural and the mystical have fascinated and frightened humans since the dawn of time. For as long as mankind has strove to be the master of this planet, we have also feared supernatural forces that could overpower the largest armies, the most powerful kings. Some of our greatest and most endearing stories—including plays by the much-celebrated Shakespeare—centered around the conflict of man verses the supernatural. But in this day where the reign of reason and science are as powerful as Oberon once was, modern man cannot believe in things like witches and fairies and magic, can we? What we fail to remember is what magic and witches and fairies stand for: not merely the supernatural, but that something could exist in this world that is more powerful than man and can do what man cannot—harness the power of nature. The witch causes natural calamity, communes in nature. Fairies are nature creatures, and sorcerers control the basest elements and have power over the natural environment. When Shakespeare incorporates magic and the supernatural into his plays, he is directly addressing man’s desire for power over nature and what ultimate knowledge and power meant for the educated Renaissance thinker. It is important to address the belief system of the Renaissance citizen with regard to magic and magical beings, and then examine three of Shakespeare’s plays—A Midsummer Night’s Dream; The Tempest; and MacBeth—where magic is prominent, in order to discover what role the supernatural plays, as well as what Shakespeare could have been using magic to say.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Henry Cornelius Agrippa wrote Three Books of Occult Philosophy, wherein Agrippa wrote his thesis:
“Magick is a faculty of wonderfull vertue, full of moft-high myfteries, containing the moft profound Contemplation of moft fecret things, together with the nature, power, quality, fubftance, and vertues thereof, and alfo the
knowledge of whole nature, and it doth instruct us concerning the differing, and agreement of things amongft themfelves, whence it produceth its wonderfull effects, by uniting the vertues of things through the application of them one to the other, and to their inferior futable fubjects, joyning and knitting them together throughly by the powers, and vertues of the fuperior Bodies. This is the moft perfect, and chief Science,…
and he goes on to link magic, science, and religion, paying a lot of attention to astrology and astronomical signs, “vertues” and objects in nature ruled by various planets, sorcery and witchcraft(2/B1). Agrippa’s followers included men like John Dee, who served as the personal physician to Queen Elizabeth. It should be pointed out that Agrippa did not believe all magic was bad, as a chapter in his book is subtitled “of the wonderful virtues of some kind of sorceries,” which goes on to illustrate beneficial uses of magic (81/G). His definition of magic is heavily linked to natural phenomenon, with many potions and spells incorporating roots and herbs that could be found growing wild.
Agrippa was not alone in his thoughts despite his eventual fate, ostracized from the universities where he had taught for years on this and similar subjects. The book The Renaissance in Europe: A Reader, contains an article by Peter Burke, who writes about the commonality of belief in Italian Renaissance society. In his article, Burke argues that the Renaissance man, a Humanist, “took magic and witchcraft quite seriously,” and often debated what it meant to be a witch (327). These debates were held in academic circles, where men tried to define the power of witches, their validity, and what exactly they held communion over. These Humanists also classified magic, as they “were careful to distinguish ‘spiritual’ from ‘demonic’ magic” and also from witchcraft (341). The revival of classical education allowed the ancient gods and goddesses to reemerge, which the clergy saw as demonic (341). The many inquisitions of witches gave the Humanists great insight into the being, the power, and the psychology of the witch.
The connection of the magical world to the natural world goes beyond Agrippa and the Italian humanists. It is a theme found throughout English literature of the time, including Shakespeare’s play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In it, the fairy folk are seen as beings of nature, but this is not an original idea of Shakespeare’s. Nature gods harken back to the ancient Celts, the Egyptians and Greek classical deities. The fairies, including Robin Goodfellow, were not limited to Shakespeare’s work and have their own basis in ancient Anglo-Saxon and Celtic myth. An anonymous pamphlet printed in 1639, entitled Robin Good-fellow: His Mad Prankes and Merry Iests tells the story of Robin’s birth and some of his more outrageous adventures. Always he seems to stumble upon people away from civilization. In one story—similar and probably adapted from Shakespeare’s play—Robin finds two young lovers lamenting because they aren’t allowed to get married, turns himself into the maid to trick an old leacher into relenting (B4/B5).
The fairies of the play are natural spirits, and find their power from nature. The base for the potion Oberon uses comes from a mystical flower, and it is this magic the fairies use that provides the catalyst for the plot and the eventual correct coupling of the young lovers. This could not have been accomplished in the world of the Renaissance man without the fairies and their magic. But it is this control of the natural world that man, in his hunger for knowledge and power, most desperately desires.
Nowhere is this more evident than in The Tempest, where the reader/playgoer is introduced to another form of magic and another connection with nature. Prospero, the ousted Duke of Milan, lives in exile with his daughter, and soon will restore himself to the throne. How he does it is most important, as his knowledge of magic and alchemy allows him to control the weather that precipitates the shipwreck of his brother, Antonio, onto Prospero’s island. Prospero would have been a most recognized character, as many learned Renaissance men studied the very subjects he came to master, not just the classics and literature and philosophy, but they gave credence to alchemy—turning objects into gold. Agrippa’s book goes into great detail addressing occult practices and similar texts of the time would have probably been the inspiration for Prospero’s own book. This makes Prospero a kind of everyman for the educated Renaissance man, that they seemed to believe that through knowledge they could gain great power, even supernatural power.
But one cannot discuss Prospero without discussing Caliban. Caliban was one of the few natives of the island, but more than that he came from magic and was one with nature. Still, he was not powerful. It appears that what power Caliban had had been stripped by Prospero. To take it a step further, Shakespeare could be playing to the beliefs of his audience and arguing that the power and knowledge doesn’t belong to those natural creatures, but is man’s for the taking. This would certainly placate the minds of educated Renaissance men, but this would be a superficial message if it was Shakespeare’s only message.
One should look at MacBeth and the role of the witches. I don’t intend to contribute to the debate of whether or not Shakespeare wrote the witches into the original folios. The inclusion of the witches would have added another context to the magic debate of the time, and it would also reinforce another argument concerning Caliban’s lack of magical ability. Caliban was a character with selfish motivations, and so, from a Humanistic perspective, he could not have power. To illustrate this, magic is used in a form by the witches to prophesy MacBeth’s ascension to power. As is apparent from the play, evil is begotten from this use of magic and tragedy ensues. The Humanists would agree with this interpretation because they would have believed that man’s pursuit of knowledge and power should only be done if it can build up God’s work in him. They saw witches and all they did as evil, and magic from fairies and other beings as possibly being demonic. But as Agrippa also pointed out, a well-educated “sorcerer” could do good deeds with magic.
Magic of any form in the Renaissance era could not be separated from pursuit of science, religion, or philosophy. Magic also could not be separated from nature. Rather, rational, educated men often debated the meaning of magic, witches, and many people believed in fairies and the supernatural. As Shakespeare showed in his three plays: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, MacBeth, and The Tempest—magic, the power over nature, should be pursued by Humanists, to uplift man and so uplift God, and only morally right men should control such power.
For the purposes of this, we can therefore ignore the potion-making of Romeo & Juliet and the influence of the ghost in Hamlet. I’ll write about the prince of Denmark soon enough, but for now let me meander on down the road of history a bit further, and we’ll examine just how far back magic goes in European society.
Agrippa, Henry Cornelius of Nettesheim. Three Books of Occult Philosophy. London: R.W. 1651. Early English Books Online.
Burke, Peter. “Witchcraft And Magic In Renaissance Italy: Gianfrancesco Pico And His Strix.” 327-341 in Keith Whitlock, ed. The Renaissance in Europe: A Reader. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2000.
Anonymous. Robin Good-fellow, His Mad Prankes and Merry Iests. London: Thomas Cotes. 1639. Early English Books Online.